Saturday, August 30, 2014

Is it that time already?

Apparently the title to this blog is what Billy Connolly is going to have written on his tombstone once he has shrugged off his mortal coil. Wish I’d thought of it first, but isn’t that always the way? Some other genius publishes your good idea first.

In my therapy and coaching work I have often come across people who either never asked themselves that question or are immensely surprised when they are forced to recognize it. It has to do with letting go, moving on and knowing when the time has come. When I was a nurse I saw many people fight to the bitter end even when the grim reaper was in the room already, when the moment is inevitable. No less dramatic but much less final, is seeing people who have come to the end of a relationship, a job, a friendship, being a parent, or living in a town or a house. Mostly, they have been blind to the fact that whatever has ended has ended, and have hung in there to the last, to the detriment of themselves and others around them.

Most humans aren’t particularly good at endings. We have a host of really interesting psychological defense mechanisms to help us prevent anxiety and they come into play when we get a whiff that change is on the horizon. You’ve probably noticed how poorly we take endings when we’ve had to break off a romantic relationship, get made redundant or when the kids leave home to make their own way. It’s easy to see why we avoid having to confront an ending, even when it is really obvious, or when others are sending really strong messages that it’s over. We’re not good at change and prefer to live the illusion that everything lasts forever.

Guilty your honor! I stayed around 5 years too long in my last full time job that I had before I retired. It took a friend to confront me after my long whine about my work and how depressing it had all become. Thankfully I heard what she said and eventually extracted myself and took the risk. A part of managing risk, of course, is being prepared. A part of the reluctance that people have about making change is that they in fact cannot make a choice because they have limited options. And, of course, not making a choice is a choice in itself.

So, one of the first things to learn about endings is to be prepared in case it happens. What options do I have to choose from if I am made redundant? What will I do when the kids leave home, I retire, my parents die? The task then is to increase the possible options so that one can truly have choice.

The second lesson has to do with actually being aware of the signs. That is, listening to what people are telling us, listening to self and being aware of how we are feeling and behaving. It’s possible, in fact human, to know that an ending is in sight but to ignore all the warning signs. So awareness or insight is a tricky thing to do. It’s part of self-awareness and self-management that a lot of psychologists talk about these days in relation to controlling behavior and emotions. You can train yourself to become more self-aware, although it can be a little confronting, knowing who you are.

For some, it feels easier to stay in an awful relationship, a job that is no longer rewarding, or a community that is no longer fulfilling, than to move on. I’ve met many depressed people taking medication for something that is situational rather than constitutional, something that could be changed with the will to risk. Also, I’m not so sure that giving up is the bad thing that we sometimes make it out to be.

I’m reminded of the Geek legend of Sisyphus who, for all time, has to push a boulder up a very steep mountain, let it roll down and then push it back up again. Zeus, like many gods, was not altogether a compassionate entity!

Some people choose mentors, coaches or even psychologists with whom they can discuss their career options, what might be the next move and even more emotionally charged changes in their life. Others have friends who can tell them things that they may not want to hear.

And, of course, endings usually end up with grief. This is a mixed amalgam of emotions that can include anger, sadness, anxiety, helplessness or resignation, and confusion. Sudden, unexpected endings are often, but not always the worst, in terms of the intensity of grief. It seems that grief is a lot easier to handle when we are prepared or, indeed, if we have options available. It is when there is the sense of being completely at a loss as to what to do that grief seems worst.

Is it that time yet?

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Testing the Limits

Like most people I try to be tolerant with the antics of others. I like to think that others do that with me because I’ve done some very silly things in my life. And, I have had a habit of my mouth working before my brain has engaged. I’ve improved with aging, like an old piece of cheese, and I am now much less inclined to react or give my opinion than when I knew everything.

But some people really test your ability to be compassionate. It seems as if they have a ‘kick me, kick me’ button designed to get a reaction, an emotional one. Its as if they really want to be disliked, at a deeply unconscious level as I’m sure most people don’t want to be disliked consciously. Some mechanism is operating that wants a negative reaction from people and mostly I suspect they don’t like themselves very much and want to keep others at bay.

I happened upon two people like this in the last week. One involved a guy in our community who insults me every time he sees me, usually at community events. He did it again on Saturday night at a fundraiser that I was compering. Instead of just ignoring him I asked him this time why he keeps having a go at me. He said that he just doesn’t like pommy @$#^%-. I can’t write what he actually said because it was obscene. It was hard not to laugh at something so childish. I’ve asked around and he is almost universally disliked and few people hire his services that know him-he’s an electrician. But no-one ever confronts him because he is aggressive and they pussy-foot around his behavior.

The second incident involved a fellow in a workshop I was running with a colleague. Same story, Everyone knows this bloke is difficult and we had been warned about him. But no-one does anything about him. He never gets confronted with his very trying behavior. And, true to form, he was difficult in the workshop until I ‘outed’ some of his antics. He then avoided me and tried upsetting others. Weird and very childish stuff.

I take the view that all human behavior is purposeful. People do things for reasons that make sense to them but mostly not evident to others. When I say ‘make sense’ this is mostly not at a conscious level but deeply unconsciously. Insight is usually completely absent: otherwise they wouldn’t do it if they knew the impact they were having. Instead they deceive themselves by using a range of psychological defence mechanisms. We all have them to trick ourselves from experiencing overwhelming anxiety. So they are useful things to have.  It’s a sad fact that psychopaths, for example, who develop insight into what they have been and who they really are either turn to drugs and drink, or kill themselves. Perhaps its better not to know.

So, when I don’t know why people do things, which is often, I play the compassion card to myself. That is I try and understand. I imagine what it must be like in their head and how horrible it must be. And then it seems natural that I should try and help. It stops me getting angry, from pushing back and doing what everyone else does. I don’t feed their need. But I do stand up to the behaviour-I call it for what it is. I point out that I won’t tolerate it and, if there is a chance in the future, I respond positively to more constructive behaviour on their part. At least I keep my heart rate and blood pressure down by not responding aggressively or with fear.

If we let people get away with bad behaviour it simply reinforces it and they keep on doing it. And they get talked about around the water cooler. At the more extreme level it’s how bullies work. But other, sadder people, push people away with their negativity. Their behaviour is infectious in workplaces or other groups too and can create an impoverished environment. We should act rather than just observe.

If you’d like to have some more insight into people who don’t like themselves, watch the film, ‘Good Will Hunting’ starring Matt Damon and Robin Williams. Great movie. I used to get some patients to watch it.